Queering Traditional Chinese Medicine Part 2: Deconstructing Static Opposites

Last post I focused on the history and basics of Yin Yang Theory, and in this post I would like to deconstruct what is quite possibly the most wide-spread misconception about Yin and Yang, namely, that they are static opposites. This might be the root issue of most clashes LGBTQ+ people encounter with Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) theory and practice, as it lends itself to rigid ideas about gender identity, gender roles, biological imperatives, physiological norms, as well posing potential socioeconomic implications. By overcoming this fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of Yin Yang theory, practitioners and patients (and especially queer patients) can benefit from a more diverse, inclusive, and theoretically robust approach to treatment.

Oversimplification of Yin Yang theory tends to result in breakdowns like the following:

There are at least 3 different ways to bring a more accurate, nuanced understanding to the above list of static opposites and begin to deconstruct them:

Way #1: Yin and Yang are relative to the different things being compared

To take the first example from the image, “Dark” is only Yin when compared to “Light”; but if “Dark” is compared to “Pure Black” then dark would be more Yang, because it is lighter than pure black, which would be more Yin.

This approach can also be understood by thinking of Yin and Yang as a continuum: things are only ever more/less Yin than something else (or more/less Yang, of course). By remembering all Yin Yang statements include a silent “more” or “less” comparison to something else, we can remember that these labels are not static or absolute.

Dark/Light is an easy enough example to draw from our root analogy of sunny/shady side of the hill (to refresh your memory on this, click here to read Part 1: Basics of Yin Yang Theory). But what about the second example above? “Inside” is claimed to be Yin and “Outside” is Yang, but again, not always so clear. This brings us to the second way we can deconstruct static opposites:

Way #2: Yin and Yang are relative to the different qualities of the same thing under investigation

1. Yang is sunny, Yin is shady, so where the sun shines and brings light is more Yang, ie: “Outside”, and so where structure shades the interior is more Yin, ie: “Inside”.

But equally true is:

2. Yang is sunny, Yin is shady, so where the sun shines and brings warmth is more Yang, ie: inside where a fire or central heating may be located, and outside is cooler and therefore more Yin.

So the relative Yin or Yang nature of inside/outside depends on the different qualities of each that are being compared, in this case, whether you are analyzing the amount of light or the amount of heat. But Yin and Yang are terms used to compare anything and everything; how do we make the conceptual leaps from things that are obviously like the sun/shade, such as light and warmth, to understanding other sorts of things?

All comparisons can be traced back to the original analogy of sunny/shady side of the hill. The line of thought tends to go something like the following:

Yin is shady, which is cooler than sunny; you stay cooler when you don’t move, therefore stillness is Yin (and movement is Yang). Now we are coming to a place where it begins to make sense to say things like Yang = movement, and Yin = stillness (when comparing movement to stillness… remember, there are more or less Yang kinds of movement, and Yin kinds of movement, and the same for stillness, according to the infinite divisibility rule of Yin and Yang).

We can now continue on to the third way to deconstruct static opposites I would like to propose today.

Way #3: Yin and Yang are relative to the perspective of any single quality under investigation

If we were to compare “hard” to “soft”, which would be labeled Yin or Yang? The conceptual steps necessary to make such a claim are not the most straightforward, and there’s not only one way to look at it, but let’s follow 2 lines of thought and see where they get us:

1. “Hard” is more rigid, and something hard can cut through something “soft”, such as a knife through butter. Here the “hard” thing is doing the moving, which is more Yang, and the “soft” thing is more Yin because it is staying still relative to the motion of the knife.

However, you can just as validly say:

2. “Hard” is rigid, it doesn’t move insofar as it is unyielding, therefore it embodies more stillness than “soft” which is yielding and allows itself to be moved/shaped, as when a hard, unyielding knife passes through soft, yielding butter.

The label Yin and Yang can switch depending on the perspective taken. In this example, the “hardness” can be Yin when it comes to the action of cutting (being unyielding is necessary to maintain the physical integrity of the knife), but hardness can also be Yang when it comes to the action of cutting (relative hardness is necessary to cut through the softer object and allow motion). This depends on whether you are investigating the reaction of the knife or the butter, ie: the single quality of “movement” is applicable to both the tool doing the cutting (slicing and moving through), and the object being cut (yielding and changing).

To sum up:

Yin and Yang are not terms of absolutes, or static opposites; they are dynamic, flowing, and changing. This is both their greatest strength and (arguably) their greatest weakness, when seeking answers through the lens of Yin Yang theory. It is tempting to look for solid, dependable absolutes, but nothing in nature is unchanging. Being conscientious about the different things we are comparing, the different qualities of the same things we are comparing, or even the perspective from which we are viewing the same qualities, will create greater understanding both from a care-giving and a wider political/social context. Greater understanding on the parts of practitioners will make us better care-givers to LGBTQ+ patients who may come seeking our help, and queer folks may feel more comfortable knowing they will be met with individualized and nuanced understandings of their particular situations and identities.

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